23 Sep 2008

Yes, You Were Robbed

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John Steele Gordon identifies the guilty parties behind the Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac collapse.

At the heart of the problem is Congress and its deeply corrupt relationship with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Congress was equally at the heart of the savings and loan disaster 20 years ago and, obviously, learned nothing from it. (For a history of what led to the savings and loan collapse, see here.)

Fannie and Freddie, two of the largest publicly traded financial institutions on earth, are headquartered in Washington, D.C., where the next-largest non-governmental financial institution is probably a local credit union. Big financial companies are headquartered in New York and other cities where capitalism is practiced. That should tell you a lot about Freddie and Fannie: they were political to their fingertips.

Being “government sponsored entities,” they were able to borrow at lower interest rates than other profit-seeking companies, had less regulation, had lower capital requirements, and had an “implied” guarantee on their huge debts. This was supposed to translate into more money available for mortgages, but was used instead to roll up big profits and, not so incidentally, big bonuses for their top management — which came not from the financial world but from the political one.

Franklin Raines, Fannie C.E.O. from 1999 to 2004, had been budget director in the Clinton White House. He cooked the books at Fannie to increase his compensation (more than $50 million). Jamie Gorelick, vice C.E.O., was number two at the Clinton Justice Department before going to Fannie Mae. She made $26 million. Jim Johnson, a perennial Washington big-foot, was chairman from 1991 to 1998. He too, according to an official government report, cooked the books to increase his compensation and failed to publicly reveal how much he received.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page has been giving chapter and verse for years on why this was a disaster waiting to happen (Pulitzer Prize judges, please note). The Bush administration tried way back in 2003 to change the system. It got nowhere. Alan Greenspan, then the chairman of the Federal Reserve, frequently noted the danger of Fannie and Freddie’s weak capitalization. He was ignored. Congressman Mike Oxley, then chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, introduced a bill in 2005 to correct the situation. Lobbyists from Fannie and Freddie succeeded in gutting it to the point that Rep. Oxley pulled the bill.

Why were Fannie and Freddie so successful at maintaining the status quo? Check it out.

Senator Chris Dodd — formerly ranking member and now chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, with oversight over Freddie and Fannie — recently said on Bloomberg Television: “I have a lot of questions about where was the administration over the last eight years.”

Excuse me? Just where the hell were you, Senator? Oh, right. You were standing in line at the bank in order to deposit the political contributions Fannie and Freddie were lavishing upon you. At least they got their money’s worth — until the party ended and the American people got the bill.

Members of Congress — aided and abetted by their many waterbearers in the media — wonder why their collective approval rating is about on par with colon cancer’s. The reason is simple enough: Congress is the sick man of Washington; a textbook example of the truism that institutions tend to evolve in ways that benefit their elites, at the expense of the people they were created to serve.

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